Ski Japan

Published on: Monday, January 1, 2007

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Been to the Alps? Done the Rockies? We pick 10 reasons why you should choose Japan for your next ski break.

1. Easier than ever

Two of the UK’s major ski operators, Crystal (website: www.crystalski.co.uk) and Inghams (website: www.inghams.co.uk), are featuring Japanese ski resorts in their brochures for the first time this year. Both companies are offering holidays to Niseko (website: www.niseko.ne.jp/en) and Rusutsu (website: www.rusutsu.co.jp) in the northern island of Hokkaido. A package with Inghams, including flights and seven nights’ half-board accommodation in a four-star hotel, starts at £995.

2. Cheaper than you think

Japan is often perceived to be an expensive destination, but a trip there needn’t involve taking out an extra mortgage. Lift tickets in the main resorts are very reasonably priced, particularly compared to major North American resorts – a one-day pass typically costs around ¥4,500 (£20/US$38). You don’t have to break the bank to stay in comfortable accommodation either. Rates at a minishuku, a traditional Japanese inn, start at ¥6,500 (£28/US$55) per person including two meals.

3. Powder – and plenty of it

The cold air blasting across the Sea of Japan from Siberia means Japan’s mountains are blessed with snowfalls of sometimes epic proportions. Trees become so caked in ice and snow the locals call them juhyo (snow monsters), and annual snow accumulations regularly beat the largest North American resorts. Niseko receives a massive 14m (46ft) on average each season, while skiers are virtually guaranteed knee-deep powder at Hakkoda, in Aomori on the northern tip of Honshu (Japan’s main island). Don’t expect to find any groomed pistes here though – the mountain is very much a backcountry skiers’ paradise, but fortunately there is a gondola to avoid hiking back up. Hakkoda Powder Snow Tours offers the only English-speaking guide (website: www.hakkodapowder.com).

4. Uncrowded slopes

The ski runs can become incredibly busy over New Year and at weekends, but come during the week and you’ll have the pick of the runs and lifts – perfect for experiencing that legendary powder. What’s more, Japan has more resorts than any other country in the world (around 700), so there’s no shortage of slopes to carve up.

5. Long opening hours

While some visitors may prefer the temptation of sushi and sake or a well-deserved Asahi beer in an izakaya (Japanese pub), hard-core skiers and boarders can up their snow-mile tally after dark. Assuming your muscles can handle it, at many resorts you can ski or ride well into the evening. Some of the Niseko lifts stay open as late as 2100.

6. Onsens

For skiers who prefer to take the weight off their feet in the evening, the perfect place to relax is in an outdoor onsen. Thanks to Japan’s volcanic activity, the country is peppered with thousands of these natural hot springs and there’s no better way to ease your aches after a day on the slopes.

7. Snow monkeys

These cheeky creatures, also known as Japanese macaques, are the only monkeys found this far north in the world. Skiers might be lucky enough to spot one from the chairlift or may even see a troop of monkeys taking a dip in an onsen.

8. Bullet trains

Japan’s super-efficient fast train service means it’s a hop, skip and a jump from Tokyo to the nearest resorts. WeLoveSnow.com (website: www.welovesnow.com) offers packages from the capital to Yuzawa in the Japanese Alps, just 77 minutes away by bullet train. There are then around 30 resorts within a 30-minute drive of Yuzawa station. Packages start at ¥82,500 (£358/US$698) for six nights’ B&B accommodation, ski/board rental and lift pass.

9. Winter festivals

Winter is cause to celebrate in Japan and there are myriad festivals to choose from. A highlight is the Sapporo Snow Festival (website: www.snowfes.com) in Hokkaido, from 6-12 February, when snow and ice statues fill Odori, Sapporo’s mile-long central park, for one of the world’s biggest winter spectacles. Giant figures from history and fantasy mingle with elaborate sculptures of famous buildings up to 10m (30ft) high.

Also worth checking out is the 400-year-old Kamakura Festival in Yokote, Akita from 15-16 February. Over 80 kamakura (snow huts) and 3,000 miniature igloos are built by heaping up snow and then burrowing out the interior. Children cry ‘Agattanse!’ to invite you into their candlelit huts for toasted rice cakes and hot, sweet sake (amazake). The purpose of the festival, apart from bringing cheer to the winter nights, is to pray for rain in the dry summer.

10. Japanese culture

A ski holiday in Japan isn’t just about enjoying your time on the slopes – it’s also an opportunity to embrace a new culture, be it taking part in an elaborate tea ceremony, sleeping on a futon in a ryokan (guest house) or tacking on a couple of days in hectic Tokyo or the more serene Kyoto. When it comes to food, Japanese cuisine makes a tasty change to your usual resort fare of burgers or Bolognese. You can slurp on a bowl of steaming hot udon noodles, tuck into winter delicacies such as taraba-gani (snow crab – caught in the waters off Hokkaido) or gorge yourself on hearty winter warmers like chanko nabe, a delicious stew of seafood, meat, tofu and vegetables, said to be a favourite with sumo wrestlers.

Further information

Snow Japan has a wealth of information on Japanese ski resorts, including reports on the latest snow conditions (website: www.snowjapan.com).